Unlearning Meditation

Unlearning Meditation: What to Do When the Instructions Get in the Way

by Jason Siff

Review by Bill Cooper, LICSW 

 In the last 20 years the impact of Buddhism– particularly mindfulness meditation– on psychotherapy has been inescapable. Training abounds for therapists to learn and teach mindfulness to their clients. Serenity and insight are often promised to those who learn and practice mindfulness. In the past, one often had to go to a Buddhist teacher to learn meditation; however, now there seems to be little doubt that in this country many of our clients prefer learning these techniques from a therapist. And many clients do benefit significantly from these practices. This is all to be be expected among the humanistic theoretical orientations, but even some behavioral orientations such as dialectical behavior therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy include mindfulness in their clinical interventions to teach clients emotional regulation and exposure training.

The problem is that the experience of many of our clients has been anything but the tranquility and peace promised to those of who pursue meditation. What do therapists do with frequent refrains from our clients such as the following? “I can’t do this… My thinking won’t stop…  I don’t have the time for a regular practice…I’m not getting anything out of meditation.” Adding to this, our clients oftentimes bring issues of shame and guilt to their meditation, and see themselves as “failures.” In short, mindfulness for some, if not most of our clients (as well as ourselves), may not be living up to the implied expectations.

What has been missing in much of the dialogue on mindfulness has been an honest critique of some of the ways mindfulness has been taught and practiced. Jason Siff, a Buddhist teacher of many years, has written a compelling book on Buddhist meditation that addresses many of these concerns: Unlearning Meditation: What to Do When the Instructions Get in the Way.

Siff is a true iconoclast. To begin, he turns the usual instructions for meditation back to the meditator for reference: “Meditation is what happens when you decide to meditate.” In other words, meditation is not a particular experience of tranquility or peacefulness–it’s whatever is happening when you meditate, including thoughts about lunch, feelings of all kinds and all other so-called “wandering” thoughts. Significantly, Siff broadens the definition of meditation to include all of one’s experience.  Therefore, all of one’s experience when meditating, not just the serene experiences or the experiences we like, becomes accepted as material to investigate and understand. Implied here is that the authority for meditation is the meditator, not the instructions, not the teacher. The process of recollective awareness—Siff’s term for his approach– is receptive: gently watching and receiving everything that comes to mind, as opposed to many meditation instructions which he calls “generative,” where the goal is to create a particular experience by, let’s say following the breath.

Speaking of following the breath, which is probably the most common instruction in mindfulness, Siff has this to say, “If you’ve learned, for example, to follow the breath as a meditation practice, this approach isn’t about abandoning that practice, rather, it’s about doing it without a strong intention.”  A unique teaching. He’s encouraging gentleness rather than discipline.

Another important feature of Siff’s approach is journaling.  Students are encouraged to occasionally write about their experiences. This becomes an aid at understanding one’s process and practice during meditation so as to perhaps answer questions such as: What’s holding this emotion in place? How is it built up, or let go of? What’s fueling it? What is its nature? These questions will sound familiar to many therapists and it’s interesting that most approaches to meditation do not include them.  Rather, in usual mindfulness practice thoughts are simply noted as “thinking,” and attention returns to the chosen object, such as the breath. In recollective awareness, one’s thoughts are gently explored, not dismissed.

Siff then addresses an issue near and dear to therapist: impasses. Yes, these can happen in mindfulness, too. Siff is trained in psychotherapy and has suggestions in dealing with impasses that are quite consistent with his overall approach. Personal stories often fill in needed details as to how these issues arise and are resolved.

The final portion of the book is a valuable sketch of the  types of basic meditative experiences: receptive, generative, conflicted, as well as and three “advanced” experiences–explorative, non-taking up, connected. There is neither time nor space to discuss these here.  Siff’s discussion is necessarily technical, but clear and worthwhile for many readers who will find it helpful at understanding the types of experience one is having or capable of having while doing mindfulness. It could be quite helpful for those of us who meditate, as well as our clients, to have this understanding about these experiences that previously have been excluded from many discussions of meditation.

Siff’s work in Unlearning Meditation is a valuable contribution to the dialogue about meditation and the teaching of it. Therapists and clients who want to learn more about mindfulness will benefit greatly from what is taught in this book.

This article first appeared in the newsletter of the Washington State Society of Clinical Social Workers.